Sitcoms adhere to a pretty stagnant format, but there are a couple of shows that circumvent the system spectacularly. MASH was an early one, weaving dramatic tension into it’s comedic base. Arrested Development was another, a pioneer in both comedy and production style.
This week I finished the DVDs of 2 series that exemplify the progression of the American sitcom. Sports Night (10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition) and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Seasons 1&2) have very little in common with each other. What they do share, however, is how little they have in common with with the average sitcom of their time.
In 1998 the 3 camera, laughtrack-laden situational comedy reigned. Then Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme came in with something totally new. With Sports Night, Sorkin and Schlamme pioneered the quick style that would make them famous. Their characters spoke fast, they walked fast and they learned fast. Sports Night scripts were 10+ pages longer than was average and the characters were always on the move, forcing production into a single camera format much of the time. The laugh track was dispensed with completely by the end of the first season. The set resembled that of an elaborate hour-long series, with dozens of meters of depth behind each shot. The language was denser, the subject matter was darker and the characters were deeper than was the average for the time. Sports Night was a sitcom that refused to believe that it was and consequently became something more.
10 years later the genre has morphed. If the downfall of last season’s Back to You told us anything, it’s that the classic sitcom format is out. These days we like edge: the fast talk of the Big Bang Theory brainiacs, the self-deprecating wit of Liz Lemon, the retrospective nature of How I Met Your Mother, the dead-pan Office style. But it was all within reason. Then a show came around that threw reason right out the window. Using the least elaborate technology and production style available to him, Rob McElhenny made It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. 3 guys and a girl behaving VERY badly in a bar- that’s the entire show. The Always Sunny gang is selfish, thoughtless, impulsive, full of bad ideas and more than a little bit racist. But the show is kind of genius.
Sports Night was classy; it had smart people wearing suits and working hard at their jobs. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has none of that stuff. They scheme all day and drink all night, Mac doesn’t even own a long sleeve shirt. So how do I like 2 such different shows? They’re both breakthroughs. Both shows saw the current landscape and decided to do something different instead. Sports Night pushed the technological and emotional limits of the genre, Always Sunny pushed the limits of propriety, the conceptions of character idealism and the guidelines of the FCC.